The New Old-Time Chautauqua is more than a show. It’s a traveling band of musicians, jugglers, acrobats, hula-hoopers and more who bring high-energy live entertainment wherever they go. And this week, they’re here in Olympia.
On its summer tour, the Northwest-based group typically concentrates on rural areas where entertainment options may be few. But this summer’s tour has included Bellingham and even Seattle.
“We’re really excited,” said Michelle Bates of Seattle, a board member, photographer and clarinet player with the Chautauqua. “We love Olympia. It’s unusual for us to be around home, and it’s really, really nice. There’s something special about a tour when our members are part of the community.”
Olympians involved in Chautauqua include Harry Levine of the Mud Bay Jugglers and Wes Hauffe of Tallhouse Arts Consortium.
The last Chautauqua performance in Olympia was a benefit show in May 2012. But the summer tour is much more than just one show.
Each stop includes a parade, free workshops and small free community performances at such places as senior centers, child-care centers and prisons as well as a big community show that raises funds for a local non-profit. The big Olympia show, set for Thursday, is a fundraiser for the Olympia Film Society.
“Our community shows are really a vital part of what we do,” Bates said. “The public shows are to raise money so we can do the community shows.”
The 34-year-old group, started by a group of performers at the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene, is in the spirit of the original Chautauquas, traveling shows common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that provided both entertainment and education.
Each summer’s touring group includes 60 or so performers and crew members, all doing two or more jobs and often performing more than once a day.
“It’s almost too much fun,” Levine said in a 2012 interview with the Olympian. “Sometimes it’s really hectic, but you usually finish every day with a sense of accomplishment.”
“Everybody has multiple roles,” Bates said. “This one is a clown and loads the truck. This one is a hula-hooper and plays trumpet in the band. This one is an emcee of the show and is in charge of garbage and recycling.”
Bates herself began as a photographer for the group and later learned to play the clarinet so she could join the band. “It’s one of my favorite things about Chautauqua,” she said. “It creates opportunities to try new things and learn new things. The band is very forgiving, and as long as you don’t screw up too badly, you can play.”
The entourage travels in buses and vans and spends nights camping or sleeping in community centers, churches or schools.
“Usually, we are in a field somewhere, and we have porta-potties and a portable outdoor kitchen, and we cook communal meals,” Bates said. “Every morning, we have a meeting where we get people oriented to what’s the plan for the day.
“It’s a fascinating community living together for three weeks on the road.”
“It’s a big crazy thing, and I mean crazy in the best way,” Hauffe said in a 2012 Olympian interview.